High Commissioner for the Maldives Dr Farah Faizal writes on her country’s return to its rightful position as a member of the Commonwealth
On 1 February 2020, just one hour after the United Kingdom left the European Union, the Maldives returned to the Commonwealth after a four-year hiatus. It was a momentous occasion for the Maldives, and for me personally, to be back as a member of the Commonwealth family.
It was significant because as a member state, the Maldives had seen engagement with the Commonwealth at various levels throughout the years. The Maldives joined the Commonwealth first as a special member in 1982, gaining full membership in 1985. From then on, the Commonwealth played a key role in various ways. Maldivian students have long enjoyed studying in the universities of Commonwealth countries. These scholarships are much coveted and in demand. Maldivian athletes had always looked forward to competing in the Commonwealth Games, meeting athletes of many small countries like ours. The Commonwealth had assisted the Maldives in numerous ways. From technical assistance to providing office space in New York and Geneva where the Maldives had taken advantage of the facilities offered by the Commonwealth to small states at a subsidised rate. The head of government of the Maldives had always participated in Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. The Maldives played an active and vibrant role in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
The Maldives in its turn had hosted Commonwealth meetings in the country – the Finance Ministers’ meeting and the Commonwealth Youth Ministers meeting are just some of them. We also played a key role in restructuring the mandate of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and we were a member of the CMAG when the Maldives was suspended from the group in 2012 after the change of government in February.
A change of government in the Maldives on 6-7 February 2012 brought a change to my position as well. As the High Commissioner representing the Maldives on CMAG on behalf of the country when my Foreign Minister could not attend, I found myself pleading to the Foreign Ministers on behalf of the ousted President Mohamed Nasheed to help us restore our democracy. On many occasions during that time, I stood outside Marlborough House with other Maldivians, begging the Commonwealth to not ignore the decline of democracy in my country. Many more marched in the Maldives holding placards that read from ‘Commonwealth Rocks’ to ‘CMAG Help us!’ It was a time when we needed the Commonwealth more than ever.
However, the decision to leave the Commonwealth in 2016 by the then President shocked the whole Maldives. While the people of the Maldives – especially those who raised their voices against the deterioration of the democratic practices by the then government – knew that the scrutiny of the Commonwealth, especially of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, was not well received by the ruling elites, very few anticipated that the government of the day would take the decision to actually walk away from an organisation that had benefited the country and its people for so many years. The mission in London was downgraded to a non-resident Embassy. The resident High Commission of the Maldives in London was no more.
In November 2018, when President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih was sworn in, one of the first directives he issued was to re-join the Commonwealth. It was the primary task he asked of me when he handed me the Letters of Credence as Ambassador of the Maldives to the UK – that is, to do my utmost to get us fast-tracked back into the Commonwealth. It was strange arriving in London as an Ambassador. When I met various High Commissioners to lobby for their country’s support for the Maldives’ re-entry, I found myself having difficulty referring to the mission as an Embassy rather than a High Commission. I was extremely honoured and touched to see the support we had from member countries. It was tremendous. They all wanted to welcome us back. It was the same all throughout the Commonwealth.
So just a little over eight months since I arrived in London as an Ambassador, the Maldives was able to re-join the Commonwealth as its 54th member. We were back in the Commonwealth family where we belonged. President Solih expressed how happy a day it was for Maldivians and stated: “As a young democracy, the Commonwealth’s foundational values of the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, multilateralism and world peace remain relevant to us more than ever. We gratefully acknowledge the support and help of the Commonwealth to the Maldivian democratic movement, and we look forward to the support of fellow member states to ensure the long-term entrenchment of these values in our society.”
Thus, on 6 February 2020, the Foreign Minister of the Maldives, H.E Abdulla Shahid raised the Maldivian flag in the presence of the Secretary-General, High Commissioners of member countries and the staff of the Commonwealth Secretariat. As for me, it was almost eight years to that eventful night in the Maldives that saw me resign from my post as High Commissioner, events that had later forced me to stand outside the Commonwealth Secretariat with other Maldivian democracy supporters. I was back in Marlborough House as High Commissioner of the Maldives again, witnessing our flag flying proudly in the winter sun against a cloudless blue sky. Fate, it appears, is not without a sense of irony in the diplomatic world.